Category Archives: Issue 4.1 Spring 2015

Jamaal May

Hum coverHum
by Jamaal May
Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2013
Paper, 74 pages
ISBN: 978-1-938584-02-2
Reviewed by: Susan Cohen

 

Jamaal May has a fine-tuned ear for the music of machinery, as you might expect of a poet who hails from Detroit and is also a performance artist. But he writes about more than the decaying Motor City in this debut collection, which won the 2012 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books. In poems notable for their sophistication, intelligence, and inventiveness, as well as their attention to sound, May explores the shifty boundaries between man and man-made world—a world that rarely shuts up.

The machines in Hum threaten both nature and people, and don’t remain under the control of the humans who manufactured them. The speaker in “Detroit Hum Ending with Bones,” for example, laments the lack of bees in the city, and then notes that his cell phone can confuse the signals in a hive and “make a drone go haywire/and spiral into the grass.” A group of men spend hours tinkering with a car before they must acknowledge they can’t fix its digital parts in “On Metal,” and: “No one is happy to learn what an afternoon of chafed/knuckles, metal on skin, no longer solves.” Hum depicts broken people surrounded by broken engines.

That May’s concerns are as often philosophical as sociological is clear from the opening poem, “Still Life,” set in an inner as well as an inner-city landscape, “the shuttered district,/a factory of shattered vials.” A child plays in this wreckage, his internal life “kept quiet/by humming a lullaby of static and burble” as if the voice in the boy’s head belongs to an old television. He wears a towel cape, stashes an exacto knife in his sock and cradles rocks, yet he’s more threatened than threatening. The poem plays with these notions of internal and external, seen and unseen—recurring themes in Hum—and ends with these stanzas:

The boy in the boy’s head
watches sparse traffic
from a warehouse window

and takes note on where
overpass paint hides rust,
where the cyan bubbles up

into a patchwork of pock
and crumbling disease,
a thief in the bridge’s body

he doesn’t see, but knows
is coming tomorrow
to swallow his song.

It doesn’t matter whether the poem is autobiographical and told from the distance of time or from the distance of an unidentified observer. Throughout the collection, May appears less interested in the narrative of memoir and more interested in the lyrics shared between people and their crumbling surroundings. He dubs seven poems “hums,” but the gadgets in them also buzz, clink, rattle and whir; they may be as tame as a sewing machine or as menacing as a helicopter above a desert battlefield. Sometimes they only begin benignly, like a coughing snow blower just before it slices off a father’s finger in Detroit. Throughout, there’s an undertone of menace.

For example, the sestina “Hum of the Machine God” starts:

There isn’t much to discuss with the Machine
God, though its voice is hard to ignore;
it speaks in planks of wood shaped for the sea,
sputters smoke, eats grass. It speaks in snow
spit into piles, commands the motion of a needle
through a hem. It hums. It waits.

Debut books these days often begin as projects, but Hum doesn’t read like one. Rather, a diverse collection of free verse and received and invented forms, it relies on sequences for a sense of unity. Besides the scattered hums, a second imaginative series with equally creative titles rifts on phobias like “Athazagoraphobia: Fear of Being Ignored” and “Chionophobia: Fear of Snow.” In a third sequence, origami creatures speak. Folded paper frogs or tigers aren’t mechanical, but they are products—manmade versions of nature.

These recurring images as well as themes also hold the book together. So, the speaker in “How to Disappear Completely” advises: “Become origami./Fold yourself smaller/than ever before. Become less. More/in some ways but less/in the way famine is less.” In another poem, a man stopped by the police and shoved against a car with a gun against his cheek so that he has no way to reach for his ID, tells us: “and my name is asked again—I want to/screech out, Swan! I am only a swan.

Frequently, this wish for visibility or invisibility occurs in the context of violence. One of the strongest poems recounts a fight that cost the speaker part of his vision, which is gradually diminishing in one eye. He recalls how viciously he beat the boy who clawed up at his face. He stares down from a bridge, closing the bad eye “like aiming through a gunsight,” and studies his blurry reflection. “Horns sprout from the head of my silhouette/rippling dark, dark, dark against the haze of water/and I try to squint that monster/into the shape of a man.”

As Hum investigates appearances and disappearances, and the mechanisms of the human head and heart, May repeatedly blurs the boundaries between people and their machines. In the last poem, “Ask What I’ve Been,” the speaker has been a construction crane with “balled fists” that “toppled buildings of boys,” and “rifled through the pockets/of their ruins.”

May’s transmutations and pronoun shifts keep readers off-balance. Yet, he retains such control in this mature first collection and crafts such beautiful language that his poems exhilarate rather than exasperate. They demand to be re-read. May, who earned an MFA from Warren Wilson and a Cave Canem fellowship, also works as an editor, filmmaker, and teacher. Most importantly, he’s an acute observer who has a tremendous amount to say.

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Susan Cohen is the author of Throat Singing and recent poems and reviews in Poet Lore, Prairie Schooner, Salamander, Sou’wester, and Tar River Poetry, among other publications. She lives in Berkeley and has an MFA from Pacific University.

Justin Hamm

Lessons in Ruin cover 2Lessons in Ruin
by Justin Hamm
Aldrich Press, 2014
ISBN: 9780692208304
76 pages, Paper
Reviewed by: Karen J. Weyant

 

The exploration of place is a common journey depicted in many of today’s poetry collections. David St. John, in the foreword to Poets on Place: Interviews & Tales from the Road, explains, “Those places from which we come and those to which we’ve moved provide the ground against which the figures of our lives move, change and depart.” Indeed, sense of place is more than just a mere setting – it frames the characters and the stories found in all works that strive to capture a given location and time. It’s within the framework of the Midwestern landscape that poet Justin Hamm, in his first full-length collection, Lessons in Ruin, explores the stories and land that shape the world around him.

Hamm’s collection spans stories and reflections from childhood to adulthood, and many of the strongest narratives embrace a teenager’s frustrated perception of the Midwest. In “Illinois, My Apologies,” the narrator explains that at a young age, “I always believed that to be/heard from the Midwest/you had to scream.” And screams he does, “in lungfulls” before the poem takes a fairytale like turn where the narrator meets an Old Man who emerges from the cornfield and cautions him “to listen to the landscape itself.” It seems as if the narrator does listen, although it takes him many years to heed the advice, for he explains, “For once my first thought/was not to scream/but to turn my ear to the open/and listen.”

And indeed, in the poems that follow, readers will find a narrator who is both a careful listener and a precise recorder, always striving to recollect the stories of the Midwest without inserting sentimentality or enforcing stereotyped images. For instance, In “The Last Day of Summer” the reader will be introduced to a small group of boys who have “discovered/their own invincibility/and beer.” In another poem, “Tent Revival” the narrator finds an exasperated fondness for the “crimson-faced pastor” who “howls a river of crooked creekbable” asserting that he while he once believed that “something grand” could have taken place at tent revival events, he admits that now he is “still too much made/out of low terrestrial gravies/to sing such a celestial song.” Even the immobile get their own stories as detailed in “Last Lesson in Ruin” where the poet invokes a scarecrow to “Step/forward, scarecrow, and walk/where your knees get lost/in snakegrass and cockleburs.”

Throughout much of his work, Hamm explores the influences of the physical world on the people, creating images so that his characters and their stories draw strength and endurance from the land. This careful negotiation of language is the most exemplified by the poem “At Sixteen” where the reader sees working fathers whose physical appearances mirror the tired landscapes:

All of its fathers stretch
bleary eyed and bitter
about their swollen
father ankles
their crooked
father fingers
their click-clacking
father joints
and their endless
father mortgages

The poet moves on to compare these fathers to their “beardless sons” who are “unknowingly rolling/ into their fathers’ skins/and their fathers’ troubles.” Thus, the landscape becomes an important part of not only binding stories to characters, but also binding generations together.

In poems that span the narrator’s adult years, the reader sees the poet doing more contemplating and less storytelling. For example, in “The Flour Epiphany” after a morning of making biscuits, the speaker gazes in the mirror and he sees his father staring back at him in two versions:

One as a young man
when he wore so much drywall dust
with a vast, innocent dignity
and one as an old, old man
when the color will be nothing
more than another sign
of his accumulated age.

This sudden image makes the poet not only ponder his relationship with his father, but also to ask the question, “Is it really so wrong to want/to hold certain things/while your grip is still strong?”

Whether it’s through lyrical observations of place or narratives that recall the past, it’s obvious that the poet is embracing both the people and the landscape around him. In “First Lesson in Ruin” he tells his daughter of the Missouri landscape: “We have no pyramids here/no stirring Greek temples./But we too have our echoes.” It’s these echoes that are caught in Hamm’s collection: echoes full of stories that reflect the Midwestern landscape in all its worn, and sometimes disfigured beauty.

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Karen J. Weyant’s poetry and reviews can be found in can be found in the Barn Owl Review, Caesura, Cave Wall, Cold Mountain Review, Conte, Green Mountains Review, Prick of the Spindle and River Styx. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Stealing Dust (Finishing Line Press, 2009) and Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt (Winner of Main Street Rag’s 2011 Chapbook Contest). Her poem, “The Summer I Stopped Catching Bees” was included in Sundress Publications’ 2011 Best of the Net Anthology. She teaches at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York. Her website is www.karenjweyant.com